Archive for the ‘Archives’ Category

Broken English

In Archives, Uncategorized on February 9, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Subject-pronoun agreement is a basic and pernicious flaw in formal written English. It makes correctly expressing the thought “someone should lend me their coat” impossible: because subjects and pronouns must agree, a singular but indeterminate subject (“someone”) must match a singular pronoun—but English lacks an appropriate singular gender-neutral pronoun (“his or her” being formally correct but ugly). The writer must find awkward workarounds that frequently impede shis ability to communicate.

“Someone should lend me their coat” is a natural and ubiquitous construction in spoken English; writers shouldn’t have to contort it into “a lent coat from someone would please me” or anything else. So how can we get the former declared grammatically correct? Who is the relevant authority—or, if none exists, what would it take to remove formal writers’ hesitation to use this construction?

The best idea I can come up with is that the US president, the UK’s prime minister, and other leaders of English-speaking countries should make a formal statement authorizing use of “they” as a singular pronoun. If this is what it’d take, I’d happily start a media campaign to make it happen. If anyone wants to join the movement, they’re most welcome.

Alleviating Misery, Promoting Happiness

In Archives, Uncategorized on February 8, 2011 at 12:00 pm

In recent history, the societies that have been best at alleviating misery have been among the worst at promoting happiness. The converse is also true.

Recent technological and social advances brought largely by the West have vastly reduced acute suffering—curing treatable illnesses, alleviating extreme poverty, reforming predatory governments and unjust social institutions—but have left intact or even exacerbated the fundamental doubts, insecurities, and lonelinesses that can make life basically unhappy. Conversely, the societies that report the highest levels of general happiness are also often the poorest, and the most vulnerable to every type of acute misery.

Obviously, the question is whether future societies can combine happiness and freedom from misery. That will take movement in both directions: “development” is conventionally about extending prosperity to poorer countries, but the countries that currently hold power can also hope to “develop” by listening a lot more seriously to the basic wisdom underpinning life in the happiest societies.

The Internet

In Archives, Uncategorized on February 7, 2011 at 12:00 pm

In the process of making a short video, I recently discovered that my Windows Movie Maker software won’t open QuickTime movies (which are associated with Microsoft’s hipster rival, Apple). After twenty minutes of searching online, I had found “VideoPad Video Editor,” a free video editing program with all the basic features I needed, and support for QuickTime files. This experience made me reflect again on the incredible value of the internet, and on how that value has been almost entirely captured by consumers.

Online services are incaculably valuable: some, such as Facebook, have almost reached the status of municipal utilities. And yet the providers of most of those services continue to be completely unable to charge us for them, except indirectly through advertising. Even that can be a hard sell: ever since YouTube began tacking ads to the beginning of its videos, there have been mutinous user comments about how the service “should” remain completely unpolluted by advertising. Never mind that YouTube was built and is maintained by large outlays of cash—unlike, say, a pristine mountain lake.

The economic explanation for this state of affairs, I suppose, is that competitors face almost no obstacles in duplicating successful online services, and consumers usually face almost no switching costs. But I’m also interested in the social dimension: our feeling of entitlement, the comfort with which we demand the internet’s previously unimagined miracles for free. As someone preparing to begin earning money, rather than just spending it, I’m a little scared to see how accustomed consumers can become to getting something for nothing.


In Archives, Uncategorized on February 4, 2011 at 12:00 pm

I wonder how much of adulthood is a process of becoming reconciled to uncomfortable facts—in particular, death. It’s a gloomy subject for a Friday night, but it struck me that a person is truly “mature” to the extent that he or she has made peace with death.

Take good sportsmanship, and in particular the ability to lose with grace. Part of the “agony of defeat” is being confronted with the fact that even our best effort cannot make the world the way we want it. In this sense, defeat symbolizes death, the ultimate violation of our preferences; and so, I think, true (rather than grudging) sportsmanship requires some level of acceptance of death itself.

Sports aside, I think we value many things—youth, prestige, romantic attention—partly for their symbolism that death is a distant concern. Being fired or dumped hurts not only for the loss itself, but for the deathly message, which helps explain why those things hurt even if we don’t want the job or relationship anyway. I think maturity is accepting that message and not looking for escapes or alternatives to it, which is really difficult to do. Well, enough of that! I may go get drunk.

Snow Day

In Archives, Uncategorized on February 3, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Everyone I know was overjoyed by the snow day. (I was too, even though I don’t have class on Wednesdays—I think I got caught up in the spirit.) That joy is interesting if you step back and look at it: we’re giving years of our lives and many thousands of dollars for the learning opportunity that our classes represent, and yet we’re delighted when we don’t have to attend them.

I think this gets at a basic problem: most things that make us happy—in the long term, but even in the much shorter term—require a little bit of pain up-front. Getting up and going to class is strenuous, even if we enjoy the class once we’re there. To overcome our reluctance, we need pressure, both from ourselves and externally. But that pressure is uncomfortable, and when a Biblical snow storm lifts it for a day, it’s a celebration.

This problem (“time preference”) keeps popping up in my classes: many mothers keep meaning to take their children to free health clinics for vaccinations, and many farmers keep meaning to buy fertilizer for the next growing season. On a more personal level, time preference has probably given me at least one unnecessary dental cavity, as well as a physique that was clearly not forged in a gym (if at least not found in the Dumpster out back). People’s willpower is only so strong, so there is a great need for systems that encourage us to do what we already want to. Letting us relax now and again is also nice, so here’s hoping for more bad weather—maybe a crippling heat wave.

Oh, the Humanities!

In Archives, Uncategorized on February 1, 2011 at 12:00 pm

I took five literature classes in college: one on Shakespeare, one on Tolstoy, and three on a bunch of other people. All of those works I read, understood, and could write about. But at that age, I was generally unable to experience much of their actual value: the gut-level impact that makes them worth reading in the first place. W. H. Auden once wrote that people should be banned from literary criticism until they turned thirty. But should we even study literature before we’re adults?

There seem to be a lot of reasons not to concentrate your undergraduate studies on literature. As an author’s account, literature presents truth through an inherently partial lens; but academic protocol demands a dry impartiality that prevents teachers from discussing it on its own terms. Without the help an impassioned teacher might have given, I could not appreciate most literature on my own: I simply hadn’t lived enough. And while I was learning—and not appreciating—Faulkner’s stylized take on the early-20th-century South, there was plenty of unexplored empirical truth lying around: the very basics of business, for example.

And yet, I don’t feel justified in wishing that I or other young students had studied literature less. Would someone please make the case for intensively studying literature at the high school and undergraduate level, taking into account the educational opportunity cost? Bonus points for classical allusions.

Are We Good?

In Archives, Uncategorized on January 31, 2011 at 12:00 pm

It’s interesting to think that people could be in grad school together, studying extremely complex and specific topics, and yet have very different views of the basic nature of life. In particular, I sometimes wonder whether or not fellow students believe that all people are intrinsically “good,” and what a person who is not “good” is instead.

My own understanding is that everyone is fundamentally sympathetic. Just by being alive, we are in an immensely challenging situation, with pain, unwelcome change, and death being pervasive facts of life. And yet we all seek the best, for ourselves at least, and generally also for the people closest to us. Even if we go hugely wrong, we are sympathetic—good—in our efforts to navigate a difficult life and attain what we think might bring us happiness.

I think your opinion on this question has potentially big implications for your work. For example, would you want to throw yourself into a development project for people who aren’t “good”—say, because their society encourages pervasive corruption and human rights abuses? Or, would you be able to fight a war with the opposite understanding? I’m glad to have my perspective on the intrinsic goodness of people: it’s helped me a lot, particularly in challenging situations. But I’d be very interested to learn what else is out there.

Visit the Midwest! It’s Boring!

In Archives, Uncategorized on January 28, 2011 at 12:00 pm

I’m from Colorado, but I’ve lived on the East Coast for most of the past seven years, with only short stays at home. Yesterday, I made a business call to someone in my hometown, and found his friendliness and leisureliness so unusual that I struggled to adapt. I hope I’m not starting to drift from my upbringing, because I appreciate that style immensely.

There is a great deal of sanity in the style of the American Midwest, and it’s often completely lost on the ambitious, coast-hopping people who need it most. It’s the sanity of space, and of boredom. There’s a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest that illustrates this perfectly, in the helpless fidgeting of a Madison Avenue advertising executive (Cary Grant) in the unfamiliar desolation of rural Illinois. Learning comfort in that kind of space is its own kind of sophistication, and one that’s badly needed in this part of the world.

I had a girlfriend from the suburbs of New York City who once called the area between the coasts “the middle of our country,” in a tone one might use to refer to an exceptionally stupid child. That anyone would feel that way about any part of the country (or, indeed, the world) is a tragedy; and it’s a painfully ironic contrast to the tolerance and urbanity a big-city upbringing is supposed to confer. I hate to think of this kind of provincialism, and I hate to think of a life lived without any conception of the value of boredom. If you’re intrigued, the plains of eastern Colorado are quite barren this time of year, and all the hotels have vacancies.

Thomas Friedman, the Popularizer

In Archives, Uncategorized on January 27, 2011 at 12:00 pm

I was interested to see that Thomas Friedman is coming to MIT on February 3—interested, first, to learn that he still speaks at colleges after being pied at Brown in 2008. Many people don’t like Friedman, and I think a lot of their annoyance is annoyance at a popularizer: someone who takes a sophisticated, confusing discipline and simplifies and sweetens it enough for a general audience. Serious students of a discipline never like popularizers.

Friedman is a popularizer of ideas. The ideas he puts forward are big and sugary—”The world is flat!”—and he’s a genius at sticking them firmly in the reader’s mind, in large part through repetition of catchprases (one 2007 article contains ten variations on the phrase “green goes Main Street”). For people who analyze these issues seriously, he may seem a boisterous, uninformed buffoon.

And maybe he is. But there is also an upside to popularizers like Friedman: they involve the general population in otherwise esoteric disciplines. Kenny G made people believe they liked jazz, and Robert Kinkade brought what are technically paintings into a lot of houses. Friedman has got a lot of people thinking, in a common language (“The world is flat!”), about globalization and a number of other issues. For that, at least, he deserves a piece of actual pie.

On Culture and Prejudice

In Archives, Uncategorized on January 26, 2011 at 12:00 pm

I’m taking this semester’s Cultural Capital class, which explores the cultural factors that promote or inhibit development. It’s a really interesting field, and one that was essentially banned from academic discourse from the mid-1960s until quite recently. (And not without reason: last semester’s foray into the topic offended a lot of students.) So far, the field does feel nascent and a bit stunted, pervaded by the sweeping characterizations you might have found a hundred years ago in, say, psychology.

The most interesting thing in yesterday’s class was the students’ reluctance to even discuss the topic. I and other young, liberal Americans choked on our words as we tried to describe feelings as plain as, “There appears to be a general difference in outlook between Catholic and Protestant countries.” (Actually, I hesitate to write even that.)

The moral here, I think, is: “Never deny the power of socialization.” Our educational and social environment was not neutral; it profoundly shaped the things we’re willing to talk and even think about. Maybe understanding the way we have shackled ourselves in the name of greater societal goals will help us understand others’ shackles—especially if those shackles seem less benign than an unwillingness to stereotype.